Source Investigation Toolkit

Steps to Conducting a Source Investigation

The agency, when possible, should create a 24-hour hotline for local law enforcement and the general public. Be proactive and monitor media outlets for news of alcohol-related tragedies that may require a source investigation. Provide first responders with the name(s) and contact number(s) of the source investigation investigators/agents.

When opening a source investigation, begin with the proper notification of supervisors and your chain of command. If notification of a possible source investigation is immediate, respond to the scene of the crash per agency policy or protocol. If notification is not immediate, begin the investigation as soon as possible. Note the investigation is essentially the same whether responding to the scene of the incident or the vehicle impound yard. Keep in mind preservation of evidence has a critical timeline.

If responding to the scene of the crash remember the source investigation is secondary to the primary first responder's investigation. Seek permission from the officer in charge of the scene to conduct the source investigation. Once permission is granted adhere to your training, skills, and knowledge when inspecting a crime scene.


1Source investigations can be conducted for any type of alcohol-related injury or death. However, for the purposes of this toolkit, we refer to all incidents as alcohol-related traffic crashes and many of the tips and training in the toolkit are specifically geared toward alcohol-related traffic incidents where alcohol was sold or consumed at a licensed establishment.

Maintain proper equipment and have equipment readily available so you will be prepared when a source investigation opportunity is identified. Suggested equipment to have on-hand includes:

  • A camera;
  • A cellular phone;
  • Radio communication;
  • Disposable gloves;
  • A digital recorder;
  • Evidence tags, labels, and bags;
  • An external "thumb" drive and or compact discs for recording of any possible surveillance video;
  • A pen or pencil;
  • A note pad; and
  • Seizure receipts.

After obtaining authorization to enter the crash scene, approach with care and keep in mind your established training in crime scene inspections. While at the scene, be sure to:

  • Inspect the entire site;
  • Be careful not to contaminate or destroy evidence;
  • Photograph the site and any possible relevant evidence;
  • Collect evidence only with the authorization of investigating officer;
  • Identify where evidence was found and mark or tag and secure for transportation; and
  • Follow your department or agency's protocol in logging and securing evidence and exhibits with your evidence custodian.

To ensure a comprehensive source investigation, agents need to inspect the vehicles involved in the crash and, possibly, the retail premises where alcohol was obtained. Additionally, agents may need to work with the medical examiner or coroner when gathering evidence. 

Vehicle Inspections 

When searching a vehicle, use the following steps to conduct a systematic inspection of the vehicle:

  1. Visually inspect the vehicle.
  2. Photograph the vehicle inside and out.
  3. Conduct a systematic search for any relevant evidence; look under the seats, glove box, center console, ashtray, between seats, trunk, etc. Divide the vehicle into sections and inspect each quadrant thoroughly. Evidence will be scattered and dislodged following a traffic collision and small pieces of pertinent evidence, such as receipts, may be difficult to locate.
  4. Take care not to contaminate evidence; use disposable gloves.
  5. If possible, photograph, identify, log, and secure any seized evidence (and only with permission of investigating officer).
  6. Inspect the vehicle for any evidence of alcohol purchase or consumption prior to the crash, e.g., containers of alcohol (full or empty), store receipts, club promotion flyers, home party advertisements, business cards, club wristbands, etc.
If notification of the crash is not revealed until a later date, seek permission to inspect the vehicle at the impound yard. If permission is not granted, speak to the primary investigating agency to determine if alcohol was a factor in the tragedy and, if so, seek a search warrant to inspect the vehicle. Consult your State laws regarding "stored" or "impounded" vehicle access. Once approval is granted to search the impounded vehicle conduct a systematic search of the vehicle as outlined above. 

Retail Premises Inspections 

If it is determined that alcohol was purchased from a retail source, visit the premises and make notification with the licensee or permittee and/or manager regarding the nature of your visit. Use the following steps when inspecting the retail premises:
  1. Obtain permission to view any surveillance video of the date in question. If your agency does not have administrative authority to inspect or search and seize evidence from an ABC licensed establishment, obtain a search warrant as soon as possible to secure and preserve any evidence.
  2. Review and seize or copy the surveillance video depicting the persons involved in the incident on the date in question. Most surveillance video is digital; have a thumb drive or other means of copying the video with you. Establish the distance and estimated time travel from the licensed premises to the site of the crash/incident as well as any other licensed premises within that area. Establish a timeline of the alcohol service, departure, and the crash.
  3. Review any employee records, timesheets, and employee affidavits or personnel files in determining who was present on the date in question and who may be responsible for the serving of the alcoholic beverage leading up to the crash.
  4. Review the products sold at the retail establishment and compare with those found at the scene or identified on any sales receipts.
  5. Review cash register tapes and transaction reports and compare to evidence found at the scene.
  6. If keg registrations are required in your State, compare records if applicable.
  7. Obtain a photo of the deceased and witnesses through the driver licensing agency or family. Share the photo with employees and patrons of the last known places the deceased or witnesses frequented. Independent of the availability of surveillance video, determine if the individual was present and inquire about their demeanor through questioning of employees and/or patrons.
Gather evidence at the medical examiner or coroner's office 

If you do not already have a relationship with the medical examiner or coroner's office, you may need to have the primary investigating officer or agency representative introduce you as the agent of the secondary investigating agency. Remember, in most States, the medical examiner or coroner's office has sole authority over the deceased and their belongings. 

When working with the medical examiner or coroner, be sure to:
  • Explain your purpose and request authorization to inspect any relevant items, such as:
    • Identification;
    • False Identification;
    • Sales receipts;
    • Credit card/ATM transactions; and
    • Clothes;
  • Take your camera to photograph any pertinent evidence, as it is not likely that you will be able to take custody of any property in possession of the medical examiner or coroner; and
  • Obtain a copy of the medical examiner or coroner's report for any information that may benefit your source investigation, if possible.

Determine whom your witnesses are, which may include:

  • Person(s) directly involved in the alcohol-related traffic crash;
  • Witnesses at the scene; including first responders and emergency medical personnel;
  • Witnesses at an involved retail premise; and/or
  • Person(s) that have information on events leading up to the crash, such as any known friends or associates that were with the individuals early in the day or evening.
Witness and suspect names can be obtained from the primary agency investigating the crash, either by interviewing the lead investigating officer or by obtaining a copy of the traffic collision report. Passengers or associates involved in the crash should be interviewed. Be sure to also include less obvious witnesses. Those witnesses can be found in surveillance videos, employee records, and social media circles, to name a few. 

When interviewing witnesses or suspects in the case, be sure to:
  • Seek permission from the officer in charge before you interview or make contact with any individuals;
  • Follow your department or agency protocol, especially where Constitutional rights are involved;
  • Know your State laws and department or agency policy regarding the interviewing of juveniles (persons under the age of 18 in most States);
  • Have your questions drafted in a systematic manner;
  • Use great tact and compassion in interviewing friends or family of any deceased individuals, and if necessary attend interviewing and interrogation courses or grief counseling classes to hone skills;
  • Be sensitive and understanding as well as assertive when seeking the truth about the investigation's who, what, when, where, why, and how;
  • Be a good listener, in order to ask the important follow-up questions; and
  • If a witness is too injured, distraught or uncooperative to be interviewed at that time, get their contact information, give them your business card, and contact them at a later date for an interview.
If you have photographs or video footage, use it to refresh a witness's memory of the date in question. It may also be used as rebuttal evidence to a witness that may not be truthful during your interview. 

An agent may be required to interview the suspect involved in the alcohol-related traffic crash either in the hospital or in custody. 

Interviewing the Suspect in a Hospital 

When interviewing the suspect in the hospital, the agent should:
  • Contact the officer or prosecutor handling the case prior to visiting the hospital;
  • Contact the hospital staff and family prior to visiting;
  • Administer their Miranda rights;
  • Have questions prepared, as well as any follow-up questions;
  • Digitally record the interview, if possible;
  • Interview any friends and family in the waiting room; and
  • Be careful of what information is divulged to the suspect regarding the facts as they are known. Know what information the suspect knows about the incident prior to making contact with him/her. This is obtained by questioning the officer in charge of the traffic investigation or possibly the prosecuting attorney assigned to the case.
Interviewing the Suspect in Custody 

When interviewing the suspect in custody, the agent should:
  • Contact the Watch Commander or Administrative Sergeant in charge regarding the nature of the visit;
  • Try to obtain a private place to interview the suspect;
  • Administer their Miranda rights;
  • Have questions prepared as well as any follow-up questions;
  • Be careful of what information is divulged to the suspect regarding the facts as they are known;
  • Record the interview; and
  • Ask the property clerk to see the suspect's belongings. Search for any receipts or other evidence that may lead to the source of the alcoholic beverages. Take photos and notes on any evidence found so it can be subpoenaed in the event of a hearing or trial.
Interviewing Witnesses at Retail Premises. 

After you have determined that a retail premises was involved in the source investigation:
  • Seek permission from the officer in charge before you interview or make contact with any individuals;
  • Follow your department or agency protocol, especially where Constitutional rights are involved;
  • Have your questions drafted in a systematic manner, (sample questions);
  • Be sensitive and understanding, as well as assertive, when seeking the truth about the investigation's who, what, when, where, why, and how;
  • Be a good listener in order to ask the important follow-up questions;
  • Record your interview; and
  • Ask for the availability of cell phone photographs or videos that were taken prior to the crash/incident.
If you have photographs or video footage, use it to refresh a witness's memory of the date in question. It may also be used as rebuttal evidence to a witness that may not be truthful during your interview. 

Interviewing Witnesses that Know the Suspect. 

When interviewing witnesses that know the suspect, the agent should:
  • Seek permission from the officer in charge before interviewing or contacting any individuals;
  • Follow department or agency protocol, especially where Constitutional rights are involved;
  • Know State laws and department or agency policy regarding the interviewing of juveniles (persons under the age of 18 in most States);
  • Have your questions drafted in a systematic manner, (sample questions);
  • Use great tact and compassion in interviewing friends or family of any deceased individuals and, if necessary, attend interviewing and interrogation courses or grief counseling classes to hone skills;
  • Be sensitive and understanding as well as assertive when seeking the truth about the investigation's who, what, when, where, why, and how;
  • Be a good listener in order to ask the important follow-up questions;
  • If a witness is injured, distraught, uncooperative or unwilling to be interviewed, get their contact information, give them your business card, and contact them at a later date for an interview; and
  • Ask for the availability of cell phone photographs or videos that were taken prior to the crash/incident.
If you have photographs or video footage, use it to refresh a witness's memory of the date in question. It may also be used as rebuttal evidence to a witness that may not be truthful during your interview.

Source investigations should be monitored and accounted for as a distinct task within your agency. Establish a system for collecting key information about the elements necessary to conduct a source investigation.

Notifying Victim's Family of Process 

In an effort of goodwill it is recommended that the victim's family be kept apprised of the process of the source investigation. Be sure to:

  • Follow the department or agency's existing policy on discussing open, on-going investigations;
  • Notify the family as soon as permitted by the agency's policy;
  • When the case is tried in a public hearing, work with the investigating officer and/or victim/witness coordinator to keep the family apprised of dates and times of the trial or hearing; and
  • Notify the family of the outcomes of any administrative proceedings, as doing so is a gesture of goodwill and builds trust and rapport in the community.
It is best to let the family of survivors know of the proceedings before the media reports on such events. 

Notification to the Media 

Use of the media in high profile cases such as a source investigation can be a good tool in promoting your agency, showing the positive work your agency is doing to keep the community safe. Another benefit is to educate the public on the source investigation program and potential ramifications of providing alcohol to either an underage person or permitting over service of alcohol to occur. When working with media, use these guidelines:
  • Follow the department or agency's established protocol in contacting the media or creating press releases on the source investigation;
  • Write concise press releases that include basic facts (Click here for sample press releases); and
  • Adhere to your agencies media protocol and include contact information of the PIO or lead source investigation agent on all correspondence with media.
If a media outlet picks up the story, they will most likely make personal contact for more details on the investigation and outcomes of those held responsible.

Completing a source investigation report should not be any different than completing other backtrack investigation reports. Follow the department or agency's protocol or format when completing the report. However, if the agency does not have an established protocol or format in completing investigative reports, include the following:

  • Persons Involved: Identify and describe all suspects and witnesses;
  • Summary of Report: Give a brief synopsis of the investigation;
  • Attachments: Identify all evidence or exhibits;
  • Background: Provide a more detailed outline of events leading up to the source investigation, i.e., notification by highway patrol of crash and information linking the crash to a location where alcoholic beverages were consumed or purchased;
  • Investigation: Describe the evidence located in or about the vehicle and any leads you developed from your findings, systematically providing a detailed report on witness interviews, breaking down each individual interview separately, and describing what was revealed in any surveillance videos and other facts uncovered in the investigation; and
  • Conclusion: Wrap up the findings of your investigation in a concise manner.
Per department protocol, submit your report to your supervisors for review. It is recommended that once your supervisor approves your report that the report be filed for all applicable actions; i.e., administrative filing, civil filing, or criminal filing.